The NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks overcame a shaky start to dominate and defeat Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake 2-1 in the Fourth Round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. For the Silverbacks, it was their first-ever upset of an MLS team, and earning them their first trip beyond Round 4.
On a night of firsts, the Silverbacks welcomed an MLS side to Silverbacks Park for the first time in team history on a humid night in the Peach State. Real Salt Lake, last year’s Open Cup runner-up, currently sitting in second place in MLS’ Western Conference, came into the game missing a number of key players, most notably, US Men’s National Team players Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman. On the other side of the pitch, the Silverbacks first-choice goalkeeper Eric Ati was on the bench with an injury sustained in the team’s last match.
This change would lead directly to RSL’s first goal. Starting ‘keeper Derby Carrillo went to kick away a harmless, bouncing ball at the top of the 18 but missed horribly and RSL’s Robbie Findley was able to walk the ball to goal to give RSL a 1-0 lead in the 10th minute.
Though the goal put the Silverbacks in a hole, it allowed the home team to relax and have the better possession in the 10 minutes after the tally. Atlanta kept up the pressure and in the 23rd minute was nearly rewarded with a goal, only to see the Jaime Chavez header called back for offside. Chavez nearly found the net a minute later with another strong header that just sailed over the bar.
Both teams had good chances as the game wore on, with Real’s Luke Mulholland lifting enticing crosses into the box, while Atlanta’s Junior Sandoval peppered RSL ‘keeper Jeff Attinella. Atlanta’s Kwadwo Poku, who scored four goals last year for the NPSL’s Georgia Revolution, was strong on the ball, shrugging off defenders left and right like an NFL running back as he made his way toward goal.
Atlanta equalized in the 33rd minute with a nice give-and-go between Poku and midfielder Junior Burgos, who received the return pass at the top of the 18 and smoothly beat Attinnella on the short side. It was Burgos’ third goal of the tournament, leaving him tied for the tournament lead with five other players.
Chavez forced a diving save from Attinella in the 40th as the Silverbacks continued to punch above their weight. RSL was unable to put sustained pressure on the Atlanta net and, in fact, spent a good bit of the half tucked down in their defensive third. A free kick from 40 yards forced a good save from Carrillo and the two teams went to into the half tied 1-1.
The second half began with no subs for either side, and the Silverbacks continued to play good, creative soccer, giving Attinnella trouble when he had a whiff of his own after he went up to collect a high deflection but the resulting Silverback shot went wide. Four minutes later, Real tried to regain the lead with a free kick down low near the end line, but the cross was well-cleared by Atlanta.
Atlanta subbed in Alex Harlley in the 55th minute and the mohawked-one immediately made an impact, earning a free kick 10 yards from goal. Pablo Cruz lifted a perfect cross in and Chavez drove the header toward goal, with Attinella’s fingertips barely keeping the Silverbacks from taking the lead.
Real Salt Lake struggled to gain possession and their frustration showed. In the 65th minute, Carlos Salcedo was shown a yellow card and though the resulting free kick was parried away by the RSL defense, the ‘Backs continued the pressure, with Harlley, in particular, providing dangerous slicing runs through RSL’s back line.
And it was Harlley who nearly gave Atlanta the lead in the 72nd minute. The striker pounded a header strongly toward the net. Only the skull of John Stertzer saved Real as he was able to clear the ball off the line.
With less than 12 minutes to go, it was still the Silverbacks carrying the run of play. Shots at that point were 17-8 in favor of the home side, and would finish 20-8 by the end. In the 80th minute, Junior Sandoval received a precise curling pass from Harlley and Attinella dove to snuff out the one-time shot.
And then at the end of the game, with overtime looming, Silverbacks forward Jaime Chavez collected a deflection off an RSL defender and softly laid the ball back to Poku, who stood alone at the top of the arc. The Man of the Match made no mistake and slammed the ball low to Attinella’s left. The Silverbacks had the lead with just seconds to play.
Real Salt Lake mounted one last attempt that was cleared away hard by the Silverbacks, and then it was time for Atlanta to celebrate its first upset win.
Overall it was Atlanta who seemed more engaged and driven to win, especially in front of a sellout crowd of more than 5,000 fans in attendance. Silverbacks Technical Director Eric Wynalda was excited to see his team succeed after a disappointing lack of results at home. “To be able to excel in this competition allows us to focus on being good soccer players. I think we got away from that,” Wynalda said.
“We’re thrilled. This is awesome,” he gushed at the end of the match. “This competition gives us a real good chance to get the confidence we need.”
Wynalda said many fans were likely at the park for their first look at the Silverbacks: “They came out to see Real Salt Lake; I think is one hell of a first impression.”
In the other locker room, it was a different story as first-year manager Jeff Cassar saw no silver linings in his team’s third upset loss in their last six tournament appearances.
““I don’t think anybody played well tonight,” he said after the game. “I don’t think anybody at all played well. I got outcoached. We got outplayed. No, there’s no positives at all from this game.”
The Silverbacks must wait to find out who they will face in the Fifth Round of the US Open Cup. They will ; USL Pro’s Orlando City visit the home of MLS’ Colorado Rapids on June 17th.
HIGHLIGHTS: ATLANTA SILVERBACKS 2:1 REAL SALT LAKE